Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Isaiah 41:17-20, John 2:13-17 ~
When I first listened to Holy Now, I cried. It was so close to my own experience of transformation it hit me right in the heart.
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second-rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
Cause everything is holy now
As I’ve said before, I grew up in a fairly moderate Episcopal Church. And my family was incredibly outdoorsy (we lived in places like Montana and Vermont). But I don’t recall ever hearing about the natural world in worship except in reference to a natural disaster. I’m sure we must have thanked God for “His” creation, and I know we sang hymns like, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” but I don’t remember any positive emphasis on the physical world in and of itself— nature, the human body, other creatures, the earth…
I know my experience isn’t universal, but, sadly, I think it’s typical. For Christianity has long maintained a split between matter and spirit, earth and heaven, body and soul, intellect and emotion, culture and nature, male and female. Of course, I didn’t realize this as a child, but it impacted me, nonetheless. I learned, directly or indirectly, that whatever heavenly realm God occupies must be a perfect, spiritual place, quite different from this imperfect earth so in need of healing.
And maybe that’s why we love cathedrals. I know I do! Because they offer a spiritual sanctuary separate from the trials and tribulations of the world outside. These huge houses of God soar toward the sky, while also closing in the sky and making it manageable. Of course, they also cut down huge living trees as beams for their vast vaulted ceilings, quarry great mounds of stone for their walls, towers, and crypts, and, honestly, drain dioceses of money that could have been used to help people in need. So, are they a good thing? Or…?
I don’t know. But, along with shock and dismay, this question arose when I learned Notre Dame was burning. Because I wondered: why would a fire in an old building cause more concern than so many other societal problems (such as the possibility of our planet burning up)? Is it that the latter is a slow burn? Or we care more about buildings than people and trees? Or we make idols of the monuments we’ve created? Perhaps, despite its size, we can get our minds around the circumference of a cathedral, but other problems just seem too big. Or, somehow, we still think God lives in a building and/or God is a concept we can comprehend only when reduced to that size.
I repeat, I love cathedrals. And I’m glad Notre Dame is reparable. But these questions are important, and none is new to me. I’ve been asking them since I started graduate school thirty years ago. For, though I held onto my childhood faith for quite a long time, a string of transformative experiences changed me before I entered Divinity School. Thus, I went with a passion for ecology and religion, or more precisely: women, ecology and religion.
Of course, in the late ‘80s, I felt somewhat alone focusing on ecological issues, even among my social activist peers. I was certainly the only one interested in the connection between environment and religion, never mind women, environment, and religion. But I saw how our culture and religion’s historical treatment of women mimicked our treatment of the earth and her creatures, and, frankly, anyone with little economic or political power. And I figured, it was going to be hard to create any real change without challenging some of the religious teachings that were part of the problem.
So, I threw myself into this course of study, started the school’s recycling program, initiated an environmental ministry, and tried to live an eco-friendly life by eating no meat, riding my bike, and adhering to the “3Rs:” reduce, reuse, recycle. Needless to say, I was teased about my fervor, even called a “turbo eco-feminist,” but I got a lot done, and it’s true; I was pretty passionate about my views.
Of course, it wasn’t without consequences. It’s hard going against the grain! And I grew tired. Tired of arguing with my oil industry brother about economics and the environment, tired of being praised as an idealist (in condescending tones) by older adults who weren’t doing anything to help, tired of hearing valid environmental concerns (most of which are now acknowledged as legitimate) poo-pooed as “fringe,” tired of being grilled about my vegetarianism, tired of being asked why I didn’t just “chill out,” tired of caring so much, and tired of wondering why so few others seemed to care.
Thus, over time, my energy diminished. I told myself the problem was just too big. And I, too small. Besides, my family lives in Montana, and I’m in Maryland, so of course I have to fly on airplanes, everyone in DC uses air conditioning, and it’s only practical to own a car…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t throw in the towel completely. I did and still do recycle. I bring my own bags to the store. I don’t put poisons on my lawn. I don’t eat very much meat. I try not to use plastic (though of course, I do). I print my sermons on scrap paper… But mostly, I’ve ended up living the carbon heavy life of a 21st century privileged American, the very carbon heavy life of a 21st century privileged American. And I wonder: what happened to that young woman who believed it was absolutely possible to live an eco-friendly life that benefited not only the planet but humankind? What happened to that passion, that concern, that hope?
Well, adult life, I suppose. Adulthood happened, with all the petty and important pedestrian responsibilities it holds. And, to be fair, I also became more focused on the specifically human problems of poverty, racism, homophobia, gun violence, and war. Plus, I actually thought we were making some progress on environmental issues, including the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016—which seemed like a hugely important step toward averting planetary disaster.
But now, here we are, 2019, and the planet is going up in flames (literally and/or figuratively, depending where you live). And, because climate change affects everything, from bee pollination to flooded cities, we (animals, plants, humans, watersheds, countries, ecosystems) are in this together. Of course, those with fewer resources will, as usual, be disproportionately affected, from food and water shortages, to conflicts over habitable and agriculturally viable land, to the new challenge of climate refugees. I mean, if you think we have a problem today (the Syrian crisis alone created a million refugees), David Wallace-Wells’ new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, asks us to imagine a global politics where more than 200 million climate refugees are on the move (UN projection for 2050). Where will they go? And who will receive them?
Enter Greta Thurnberg, the young Swedish activist who’s inspired young people all over the world to join in a student climate movement, with over a million participating in climate strikes just last month. Simply put, Greta is my hero. She spent her Easter Break traveling around Europe by train (planes use too much fuel) to meet with the European Parliament, the pope, and British MPs. In her words: When I was 11, I became very depressed. It had a lot to do with the climate and ecological crisis. I thought everything was just so wrong and nothing was happening and there’s no point in anything.
But she then had a breakthrough where she realized she could make a difference, and she promised herself she was “going to do something good with my life.” That’s when her School Strike in front of the Swedish Parliament began.
On her Easter trip, she told a BBC interviewer that her generation’s future has been stolen so a “small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.” And she said to the British MPs: “You don’t listen to science, because you are only interested in the answers that will allow you to carry on as if nothing has happened.”
Greta has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism, and she says this has helped her activism: It makes me different, and being different is a gift, I would say. It also makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies; I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started the school strike.
These are wise words, and true. Because you have to be a little different to live and, frankly, preach something so radically different. You have to see “outside the box” to challenge religion or culture. You have to march to a different drummer.
It’s certainly what Jesus did! I rarely preach on his “tantrum in the temple,” because there’s so much else to focus on during Holy Week. But it’s an important story. Thus, I decided to use it as our scripture after Easter, instead of before. As Meghan just read, in John’s gospel Jesus becomes so angry about what’s going on in his Father’s House, he yells and upends tables. He doesn’t like business as usual. (And here I sigh, because I do love a fabulous cathedral gift shop!) But no, there are other activities, less transactional, more relational, that should be happening in his Father’s House.
And I think this metaphor can be extended. As Carol wrote last week, the first Earth Day wasn’t really April 22, 1970, it was the moment creation began, or as Genesis tells us, “in the beginning…” So, if in our tradition, God is the architect of the world, isn’t all creation God’s home? Meaning, when Jesus overturns the tables in the temple, yelling and asking what the ______ we’re doing in and to his Father’s House, couldn’t he just as aptly have yelled: what the ______ are you doing in and to God’s world?! Why are you soiling the only nest you’ve got?
Agh! As usual, I have no answer to the problem of evil. But I’ll tell you in no uncertain terms: what we’re doing to this beautiful earth is evil. And no amount of profit or convenience or material abundance can justify it. It’s wrong. And it’s time for us all to get behind a 16-year-old Scandinavian girl in braids, who clearly has veriditas (the greening power of God, as Hildegard von Bingen called it) coursing through her veins.
We can do it, we really can! But I’ve learned the hard way over thirty years, that we must do it together, in community, with one another. Yes, we’re each part of the problem and solution, and yes, we can each make a difference, but as Greta says, “most emissions aren’t caused by individuals, they’re caused by corporations and states.” And, only by coming together as church, ekklesia, and other communities, will we have and be able to sustain the power and energy to live and demand change.
So, I leave you with a question: If you grieved for Notre Dame, Our Lady of Paris, please ask why you are not wailing about the plight of Our Mother, this planet, earth. And then; do something. Or, better yet, stop doing something. We’re all going to have to drive less, eat less, buy less, and in general and all ways, consume less if we hope to slow this runaway train. To state it in the positive: we must act— speak out, reduce our carbon footprint, see the power of God in and through the natural world, and do everything in our power to save all that is holy. For everything is… holy now.